When today started I intended for the story to be a description of our tour of rural china, and I even had mentally sorted out pictures of people in fields, and country houses, but it all changed when we got to the school. Kids have a way of doing that.
In fact, today affected me so much it almost brought me to tears at points — again, kids have a way of doing that.
I had said I wanted to know what life was like in the real China. Outside of Beijing, Shanghai, the cities — what the rest of the people lived like. Ling mentioned this at one of our dinners, and next thing I knew things were planned. This morning we were picked up in a car, arranged by the principal of the school Ling had gone to, and the one her dad had been principal of. The idea was to tour the countryside, have lunch with her cousin’s family, then in the afternoon we would visit the local school. Even more interesting Ling had been asked to give an inspirational speech, and I was even to give a short 5 minute talk (or so I thought).
We drove through the tour, we met her cousin, we had lunch in a small restaurant in the village (and this story will come in its own time), and I thought I was having the experience of a lifetime. I had no idea what was in store for us.
We arrived at the school, at the end of lunch. My first thought as I watched some kids, and listened to the noise was kids are the same everywhere. This could be a school in Vancouver. We didn’t go in right away, Mr. Pan (our host, the principal, a good friend) invited us into his residence in the school, we looked around, had some tea and talked. His residence was a beautiful two story fully detached house.
Then we went for a tour of the school, the kids were still out.
We walked into the school grounds, and the kids saw me and my cameras, and like kids everywhere starting jumping up and down, and running around, and asking to have their picture taken. I obliged as we walked by, and Mr. Pan lead me into the English Teachers office. He was excited to see me, poured me a cup of tea, and explained to me that he had taught himself English in his spare time. I guess I should have figured this out when he told me he had been teaching for 30 years, but when I went to introduce Ling I discovered he already knew her — he had been her English teacher!
Outside the teacher’s office
Meanwhile it was beginning to don on me that there was a crowd growing outside, and the noise was growing louder and louder. I looked out to realize there was a crowd of kids pressing into the door so large that Ling could barely contain them. They were all so excited to see me — a foreigner.
I stepped out to say “hi”, then realized I had forgotten my camera back at the desk, stepped back and grabbed it. Mr. Pan and the English teacher (who’s name I didn’t catch) suggested we head up the hill. So Ling and I stepped outside, and were surrounded by a sea of kids, larger than I could count. This sea followed us all the way up the hill into a little gazebo, at which point we were surrounded.
Can you see me?
Ling recovered her balance first, got all the kids around us and told them we were going to video tape each one telling us their name in English. I grabbed the video camera and started taping one-by-one (as much as we could, as they were running and jumping). It was during this time that one of the cuter moments of the day happened — one of the kids told me his name was ‘Tian Yi’ I asked him to repeat it, he confirmed, and I told him that was great my son was Tian Yi – the look on his face said this did not compute; how could a foreigner’s name be Tian Yi.
Lost in a sea of kids
Once we taped all that, some kids wanted a picture with me, so I gave the Nikon to Ling, lined up, and was suddenly mobbed by a sea of kids so large that Ling couldn’t see me — it was at this point the situation really began to sink in, and I realized just what was happening. Then we swapped, I took the Nikon, and Ling the kids, and the same thing happened. Again, she recovered better than me and started lining the kids up 5 at a time.
When it was finally time to get moving Mr. Pan got things under control in a way only a principal can; as we were walking away Ling’s sister heard a little kid say “I’m so excited I’m not going to sleep for a week!”
We went upstairs, and accidentally walked into the wrong room — we were supposed to be in the Principal’s office, instead we walked into the computer room. Complete pandemonium, the teacher lost the class until we left. Finally we sat down in the principal’s office, and started to talk calmly. Meanwhile out of the corner of my eye I saw kids keep walking by and peering around the corner to look at me. I realized I couldn’t even step out to go to the washroom, I would disrupt the whole school.
The vice principal took notes from Ling on how to introduce us. She was going to talk for 40 minutes, they wanted me to talk for 20; not 5. About inspiring the kids to learn english, and about responsibility. I looked at what had happened on the way in, and realized, that I had this wrong — I had figured I would go on stage wave, say “hi, this is a great place”, and nobody would understand me anyway. No, Ling was translating and their was going to be a local Chinese TV camera there.
We went downstairs and Ling and I watched streams of kids walking into the central area, bringing their chairs, sitting down, and waiting. I asked, there were about 1,000 kids in the school. When the vice principal introduced us (and pointed out we came from the same place as Dr. Bethune) there were few eyes on him.
Ling talked first, she had prepared a speech. I set up the video camera on the tripod so we could get everything. Her talk was well received, unfortunately I didn’t understand a word.
After that it was my turn, I had spent the previous 40 minutes of Ling’s speech composing something in my head. I had to be careful pacing though, I was distracting the entire school.
We went up, I talked for 10 minutes (Ling translating). I had planned longer, but I could see after what was now an hour seated for 10 to 12 year old kids, we were losing them, and wrapped up.
We thanked everyone, stepped down. All the kids dutifully left, and it was over. As we were getting ready to leave, a few kids came up with pieces of paper and pens, and asked Ling and I to sign it for them. Then a few more. Next thing I knew, we were surrounded by so many kids, pens, and papers that I was losing track of what belonged to who. I don’t know how long we stood there signing autographs. After that more kids wanted pictures. Meanwhile a number of the kids had been giving Ling small (school) pictures of themselves, she was getting them to write their name on the back of each one. These are stored carefully in the camera bag so we don’t lose them.
I said earlier in the week that i was feeling overwhelmed. I didn’t know what overwhelmed was until now. Watching the excitement, the innocence of a thousand kids running around — I start to see how humanitarian work could become addicting.
I am still processing just what happened today, but it seems to be like a life changing experience. There is so much more than what I wrote above, there is just no way to put it into words.
I would call this a once in a lifetime experience, and in almost any other case it would be. But it is very likely that visits to Shu Cheng are going to be far more frequent than that, in which case I may have many more experiences like this in store for me.
It is an awe inspiring thought.